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Idaho's Stanley Basin runs wild

A backcountry trip in the Sawtooth Range summons the spirit of the Old West.

August 22, 2010|By Dan Blackburn | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • A trip into the Sawtooth wilderness can go from hot and dusty to tree-lined and rocky. The area is "a great place to restore yourself," says one Forest Service area ranger.
A trip into the Sawtooth wilderness can go from hot and dusty to tree-lined… (Dan Blackburn )

Reporting from Stanley, Idaho — — Just an hour north of Sun Valley, Idaho's celebrity hot spot, lies the Stanley Basin — an amazing region surrounded by snow-capped mountains, spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife, with the Salmon River — also known as the "River of No Return" — running right through the middle.

Some 20 years ago, I spent serious time in this basin skiing and backpacking in the surrounding mountains, first with acclaimed Idaho mountaineering guide Joe Leonard and later alone or with various backpacking buddies. But for reasons unknown, I had not returned until one of them suggested a reunion of sorts with a small group of friends in this extraordinary place.

When I first traveled to Stanley, the sign outside of town said "Population 100." Today, the sign remains unchanged, and people who live here say the true year-round number may be more like 89 hardy souls. They certainly are outnumbered by elk, deer and maybe even by bald eagles and wolves, plus some mountain lions, bears and sandhill cranes. Much of the Old West is alive and well in this wild basin.

The landscape unfolded dramatically beneath us as we slowly descended from Galena Summit. The Salmon River sparkled in the afternoon light, and green meadows sprawled at the feet of jagged mountains. The Sawtooth Range is very aptly named. Before long, my partner Gloria and I turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road leading to a campground on the edge of Pettit Lake — a large lake popular for trout fishing and as a jumping-off point for backcountry trips into the high mountains.

Planning your trip

From LAX, nonstop service to Boise is offered on United and Alaska, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United, Delta and Frontier. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $312. The drive time from Boise is a little more than two scenic hours.

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Stanley veteran Greg Edson describes the area as "a mix of cowboy boots and river sandals." He adds, "The views. The vistas. The sense of solitude. The most magnificent opportunity to experience lands as they've always been."

That's not to say there haven't been changes. Antelope now graze in the meadows, driven north by continuing development in the Sun Valley area. Long-necked sandhill cranes are a fairly recent arrival, and the area boasts three viable wolf packs, which were nonexistent until just a few years ago and are a subject of controversy, especially among ranchers and elk hunters. In addition, the depredation of bark beetles has killed large swaths of pines much as they have done in the Lake Tahoe area.

However, the greatest impact has been the establishment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area that covers 756,000 acres, including the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, and virtually bars development. It encompasses four mountain ranges with more than 50 major peaks topping 10,000 feet, more than 1,000 high-mountain lakes and 250 miles of trails. It also is the headwaters for four major rivers, including the famed Salmon River, whose waters stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean and are a major destination for salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

The Salmon is a premier location for whitewater kayaking, rafting and canoeing. Every summer, as many as 10,000 people take commercial rafting trips down the river, while an additional 5,000 make private trips. A couple of miles down river is a bridge that crosses over onto a road leading to Robinson Bar Ranch, which is owned by singer/songwriter Carole King. Interestingly, about 30% of the people who journey under the bridge and down the River of No Return come from California, which is surprising when you consider that the area is relatively unknown.

We hopscotched our way down the river, stopping at various viewpoints to watch kayakers, rafters and canoe paddlers thread their way around some rocks and through fairly mild rapids. One of the most popular group trips is a four- to five-day wilderness excursion on the River of No Return with the rafts stopping at natural hot springs and resting on sandy beaches. Jared Hopkinson, who runs the Sawtooth Adventure Co., told us, "I dig watching people push themselves. There is a lot of bonding, and families become lifelong friends. It is kinda like going on a cruise, but more exciting."

For many visitors, the crucial lure is the region's well-deserved reputation for trout fishing. Brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout rise to the surface of hundreds of streams, all snapping hungrily at colorful flies on the end of a line or snagging shiny spinning lures beneath the water. For those headed to the high mountain lakes, the best catch of any day is the spectacular golden trout. They may be California's state fish, but they have been transplanted to Idaho's icy mountain lakes, where they grow larger and seemingly more hungry.

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